PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

B.B. King: Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: B.B. King

Peter Su

In theory, it's about time a disc like this came out. Especially considering how many other blues legends have had their songs recompiled and reshuffled in endless combinations and permutations of compilations.

B.b. King

Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: B.B. King

Label: Universal Chronicles
US Release Date: 2003-09-09
UK Release Date: Available as import

In theory, it's about time a disc like this came out. Especially considering how many other blues legends have had their songs recompiled and reshuffled in endless combinations and permutations of compilations, it's difficult to believe that this -- all 12 songs of it -- is already the most definitive compilation to include both B.B. King's early songs, now held by Virgin, and the later ones that, from 1962 on, are held by MCA.

Except that there are only two early numbers here, "Three O'Clock Blues" and "Everyday I Have the Blues". Considering that this period was arguably King's best, two songs will hardly suffice. It was in this early period that he innovated the blues to his own ends and built both the musical and spiritual foundation for his later sound with a bigger band.

Even early on, he's already accompanied by horns and piano and already sounds jazzy. Ironically for someone who's know the international goodwill ambassador of the blues, King's music shares surprisingly little with the hard, sparse Chicago sound now taken as the prototypical blues "sound". Instead, he's much closer to the Kansas City sound, where jazz, jump, swing, and blues were all meshed together in a more upbeat sound and attitude.

Lyrically, it thus makes sense that, even in "Three O'Clock Blues", one of his first 1948 recordings included here, he's already singing that, if he can't find his baby, "I'm goin' down to the bowling ground." That's right, "bowling", not "burying." After all, "That's where all the men hang out." In this context, the pop (even occasionally maudlin) feel of some of his MCA songs makes sense. King is the best known, best liked, and most commercial blues artist exactly because of the differences separating him from the few other blues artists in his artistic league (Muddy Waters, for instance). Especially within the genre, no one else of his caliber is even close to sounding so nice and intelligently, movingly, likeably normal.

What shouldn't be surprising -- and what glues the album together as a listening experience if not as an adequate representation of King's place in history -- is how consistent the spirit conveyed by the songs has been. In his early days, King's voice is softer, sweeter, and more supple and, perhaps most importantly for an artist in a genre where softness and sweetness aren't especially valued, they are lyrically more inventive. More often, the early scenarios he (as well as the songwriters he picks from) builds around his narrators, whether cheated-on boyfriends or sweet seducers, are more creative and more inventive.

But part of King's appeal is that his warmth, sincerity, and intelligence are never close to awful, so even the recent albums, cherrypicked to a choice few, hold up fine. Especially here, where only three songs are post-1980, the energy of his performances more than carries over what might, as creative songwriting goes, be relatively mundane -- if timeless -- conceits. Besides, "Inflation Blues" is a Louis Jordan classic resung as a lament about Reagonomics and Robert Cray, as likely an heir apparent as anyone else, holds his own in the "Playing with My Friends" duet.

Still, it's unfortunate because King could be well served by, say, a two disc set of 40 songs spanning his whole career. Certainly, his historical impact merits this and his artistic achievements would make it riveting listening. But at least the brevity of this disc won't get in the way of anyone buying Virgin's 1992 best-of compiling his early work. Or, for that matter, MCA's single or double disc compilations of his later stuff.

Admittedly, the music more than holds up for the more than 47 minutes that the album runs. Even granting that I favor his earlier, shorter stuff, the smart whittling of recent stuff serves it well. Yet, as good as the music itself is, you'd still be better off, even if you're on a budget, getting the single disc Virgin compilation first and the single MCA compilation or Live at the Regal (especially since none of the latter's incendiary live versions are included here) next. After all, once you've heard this disc, you'll only want to get those anyway.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.